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August 24, 2013

Tulsa's Watts rises from walk-on to elite RB

TULSA — Trey Watts rarely had to deal with comparisons to his father - former Oklahoma quarterback J.C. Watts - while going to high school in Virginia.

And that was just fine with him.

Now, however, as Trey Watts begins his final season back in the Sooner state - as a senior running back for Tulsa - he's taking the time to fully appreciate the journey that's seen him rise from former walk-on to one of Conference USA's best. It's a journey during which Watts has formed his own legacy, and he hopes to cap it off with nothing short of a championship finish.

The Golden Hurricane finished 11-3 last season and won Conference USA, ending with a win over Iowa State in the Liberty Bowl. Many of the team's top offensive players return this season, highlighted by Watts - the all-purpose threat who was the Most Valuable Player in the bowl win.

Watts accounted for 2,215 all-purpose yards last season for Tulsa, including 1,132 yards rushing. He also returned a punt and kickoff for touchdowns, and his versatility has third-year coach Bill Blankenship consistently pestering his assistant coaches to make sure the 5-foot-11, 200-pound Watts is on the field as much as possible.

"I want 22 in the game, because I know he knows what to do and that he's going to do the right thing,'' Blankenship said. "He gets tired ... He can't play every snap. I just like him in the game.''

If it weren't for Blankenship, Watts may never have ended up - or stayed - at Tulsa.

His family had moved to Virginia after seventh grade, doing so because of the burgeoning political career of his farther - who had been elected to Congress. The move turned out to be a blessing of sorts for Watts, who enjoyed the relative anonymity on the field compared to when he lived in Oklahoma.

"That probably put less pressure on me since people didn't know about my dad,'' Watts said. "In high school, I was never really worried about my name.''

Watts had no Division-I scholarship offers after a high school career that saw him gain more than 2,000 yards combined rushing and receiving, largely due to his lack of size and the fact he shared much of the spotlight on a talented team.

It was only after J.C. Watts called his former high school and college friend Blankenship, then an assistant with the Golden Hurricane, that Trey Watts jumped onto Tulsa's recruiting radar.

Blankenship didn't have a scholarship at the time to offer Watts, but the running back was OK with that. He knew Blankenship believed in his ability, and not just because of his last name.

"Trey was not a great high school player,'' Blankenship said. "He was not a Division-I recruit that people just (thought) would be a no-brainer, but he was a very good high school running back.

"When I looked at the film, I had flashbacks because I saw an older guy with his last name making some of those same moves. I thought, `Maybe.'''

Watts didn't immediately fit into his new home at Tulsa. In fact, after his first year - when he redshirted and battled homesickness while working with the scout team - he gave serious thought to leaving the school and moving home.

His family convinced Watts to stick it out a while longer at the school, a move that paid off when he appeared in 11 games his freshman season. And, after Blankenship was named the head coach following that season, Watts was put on scholarship the following spring.

"I couldn't ask for a better group of guys to be around,'' Watts said. "It's really just been an awesome experience, and I couldn't imagine doing anything differently.''

Watts' impact at Tulsa has been felt away from the field just as much as on it.

Senior running back Ja'Terian Douglas, who has teamed with Watts to combine for 4,340 yards rushing and 21 touchdowns in their three seasons together, said Watts was one of the first players to talk to him when he arrived on campus.

Watts was just a walk-on then, but that didn't stop him from already being one of the Golden Hurricane's leaders.

"He's taken me under his wing ever since,'' Douglas said. "You see it in his hard work. He's one of the smartest guys I've seen, and everyone knows he's earned everything he's gotten because of everything he's done.''

And now, as a proven veteran, Watts continues to impress his teammates and coaches alike.

"What happens now is when he speaks in our meetings, our players listen,'' Tulsa running backs coach Dan Bitson said. "They get it, and they receive it better from him than they would an actual coach or adult, because he's able to put it in their terms a lot better than a coach could.''

 

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